It’s that time of year when things go bump, when the thing under your bed gets bolder, and when the real masks are taken off. I originally wrote this for an online contest that was cancelled.
They say places have memories—not the frozen vignettes held in the minds of fragile human minds, stone- and earth-bound memories that cling to the very roots of a place. January wondered why the unhappy memories held on the longest. She blew stray tendrils of hair out of her eyes and kicked the box at her feet; it rattled in protest. A box of her father’s books—nothing fragile.
It’s not like he’s coming back to get them, she thought.
The breeze shivered the rusty leaves that drenched the sidewalk and sent them skittering across, like many legged creatures. January shivered and scooped up the box of books. The sooner she unpacked, the sooner she could do anything else.
The greasy silhouette of several slices of pizza—reward for her mediocre effort—shone on a paper plate. January lay on her bare mattress, staring up at the water-stained ceiling, picking out shapes and faces in the whorls and splotches. The single lamp sat on the floor and flickered every few minutes. She forgot to buy extra light bulbs and the sockets were old and she fried two before giving up. The quiet was unnerving; it seemed like another lifetime since she lived in this house, walking to Harvard Square for a coffee and giggling at the college boys. She felt her eyelids growing heavy and as she drifted into sleep, the lamp buzzed, popped, and went dark.
January jerked awake at the sound of pounding on the front door. She rolled off the mattress in surprise and landed on the dusty floor. Disoriented, she shoved her hair out of her eyes and looked blearily around. Her father’s house in Cambridge. Her new life.
“Coming, coming!” she yelled.
The edges of a dream lingered as she wrapped a cardigan around her wrinkled clothes. A voice—someone saying her name? She shook her head to clear it and opened the door.
“Oh, hello,” an old woman stood at the door, wrinkled lips pursed.
“Can I help you?” January asked.
“I wasn’t sure if anyone was living here,” the woman looked over January’s shoulder. “The last resident left years ago.”
“My father, yes,” January said shortly, gripping the edge of the door.
“He did have a little girl—pretty thing,” the stranger looked her up and down.
“Is there something I can do for you, Mrs.…?” January felt her irritation lessen as she glanced down the street. Maybe the old bat was lost.
“I think my cat may have gotten into your shed—I haven’t seen him this morning and he always comes in for breakfast. I’m Mrs. Murtagh.”
“I haven’t been near the shed—but it’s entirely possible. Let me put on some shoes and I’ll go out with you,” January tried to pull the door shut.
“So kind of you, dear,” Mrs. Murtagh took a step forward and January had no choice but to let her in.
“Sorry about the mess,” January said, not feeling very sorry at all. She found her tennis shoes and slipped into them.
Mrs. Murtagh was bending over the box of books; the cardboard lid lay on the ground. January took a deep breath. Some old people had no concept of privacy.
“How about we go find that cat?” January said, trying a falsely cheerful tone.
Mrs. Murtagh showed no sign of embarrassment and put down the book she was holding with a yellowed smile. The search of the shed revealed nothing but tools rusted into utter ruin and piles of rubbish. January promised to let Mrs. Murtagh know if she spotted Clancey.
“Idiotic name for a cat,” January said as she shut the door behind Mrs. Murtagh. She was tempted to watch the old, crabbed woman to make sure she really returned home, but that was the paranoid New Yorker in her.
She turned back to the mess of half-unpacked boxes, stubbed her toe on the box of books and swore. She bent down to massage her throbbing foot. One had fallen to the floor, open to the middle. January knelt down to look at it. A copy of Wuthering Heights—a priceless edition the appraiser told her. Writing was scrawled across the pages in bold, black ink. January picked it up with shaking hands and began to read.
I knew the first time I saw you, you see, that your big gray eyes and clouds of dark hair would be mine to hold, mine and no one else’s. The way you laughed—head thrown back, shoulders shaking. My angel, I knew how it would be.
The beginning of time, genesis, my own beautiful Eve—January. My chill, icy lady, unyielding, unchanged by time. Venus, Aphrodite, January.
January flipped through the pages in horror, the book was filled. She dropped it, her fingers burning.
“No,” she said, scrubbing her hands frantically on her jeans. “You’re dead. You’re dead.”
Mrs. Murtagh’s face swam before her eyes. Time spun backwards and the wrinkled face and cotton fluff hair turned to smoother skin and sleek gray hair. Not Murtagh. Mrs. Carlisle—single mother of Daniel Carlisle.
“January,” the voice sounded like the whisper of the leaves outside.
“No,” January said again.
Daniel, whose always seemed to be on the edge of her play, getting the mail, raking the leaves. Daniel, who always smiled at her in a way that made her abandon her game and retreat inside to a book, unsure why the daylight seemed to dim.
“You came back,” Daniel’s hands brushed the thin hairs on the back of her neck.
“My father—he killed you. I saw him hit you with the shovel.” Her breath came in uneven gasps as she felt Daniel’s lips on her ear, his breath shivered across her cheek as he laughed.
“I told him I would never leave you. That I would be here when he could no longer keep you from me. I knew you would return.”
January looked at the hand that was creeping down her arm, caressing. It was white and puckered. Like something dead kept in a jar. The sickly smell of flowers left too long in a vase assailed her nose. Cold lips traveled down her neck. Black flakes like falling leaves framed her vision.
“You came back,” he said into her hair, exultant. “And so did I.”